MIAMI -- The walk down the tunnel became unbearable, and suddenly Kevin Durant could hold back the tears no longer.
Moments after Miami's 121-106 championship-clinching win, moments after choking back emotion and congratulating each member of the Heat he could find, Durant shuffled down the dimly lit walkway and was crushed by the weight of failure. He hugged his general manager, Sam Presti, his owner, Clay Bennett, and, finally, his parents, Wanda and Wayne Pratt, the pain pouring out of him as he gripped them in a 15-second embrace. The NBA is a cruel, cruel league, unforgiving, at times, to even its brightest of stars. And here, in the bowels of AmericanAirlines Arena, Durant experienced the very worst it had to offer.
It is of little consolation to Durant that the Thunder were beaten by a better team. Miami deserved this, earned it through equally crushing failures. A year ago, LeBron James was in Durant's position, beaten by Dallas, facing a media firing squad taking aim at him with both barrels. James absorbed that defeat, used it in the offseason, recalled it in the playoffs and simply willed his way to a win. LeBron's 28.6-point, 10.2-rebound, 7.4-assist per-game average in the Finals won't go down as the greatest of all time, but it will rank as one of the most impactful. James dominated both sides of the ball, surgically slicing up Oklahoma City's defense, crawling into Durant's jersey to stifle him on the other end.
It was the completion of a long, torturous process for James, one Durant and the Thunder are still immersed in. Oklahoma City made enormous strides the previous three seasons: suffering through a dismal 3-29 start to 2008-2009, winning 50 games in 2010, advancing to the conference finals in 2011. They thought they were ready for this one, last step, only to arrive at the Finals and realize Miami was more prepared for it.
"They were here last year and they had a bad taste in their mouth," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "There's no question, when you experience something like that, there is something more to the next time you get back."
The Thunder now feel what Miami went through and will learn from it as they did. Durant has now faced two of the world's best wing defenders in the playoffs -- Ron Artest and James -- and if history is any indicator, he will return next season a better player. There are so many elements of the 23-year-old Durant's game that have yet to be unlocked. He will become a better post player, as James did in this series, will add the bulk needed to his slender 6-foot-9 frame to establish position. He will diversify, add shots and come back ready to terrorize the league in a variety of new ways.
"He's going to use this experience like I used it, as motivation" James said. "Hopefully I don't continue to have to run into him. Because he is that great."
The growth will begin with Durant, and will continue with Russell Westbrook. The criticisms of Westbrook, also 23, are absurd, always have been. He shoots a lot because Brooks asks him to. He scores because if he didn't, who would? Like Durant, Westbrook is a tireless worker. He spends countless hours honing his craft in the offseason, going to basketball boot camp with Derrick Rose, Kevin Love and Al Horford, under the watchful eye of respected trainer Rob McClanaghan. The injured Rose won't be around to drill with this summer, but as a likely member of the Olympic team, Westbrook will find plenty of practice competition.
The Thunder simply don't have many holes to fill. They have two notable free agents (Nazr Mohammed, Derek Fisher) and quality players (Cole Aldrich, Eric Maynor, who is expected to return after missing most of the season with a knee injury) who are poised to replace them. The conversation this summer will inevitably focus on James Harden and Serge Ibaka, two key players who are eligible for extensions. It's unknown if the Thunder payroll will support those kinds of salaries, not with Durant's max extension kicking in this year and Westbrook's set to be paid next season. But the Thunder have one of the NBA's best GMs in Presti and an owner in Bennett who has never even hinted that he is unwilling to pony up the cash.
This was a painful step in Oklahoma City's development, but a necessary one. The NBA demands a pound of flesh from all its champions, and it took a chunk from the Thunder on Thursday night. Yet showered, dressed and sitting side by side on a dais, Durant and Westbrook were despondent but defiant, down but not defeated. They recalled the waning moments of the game, when they were forced to watch Miami start its celebration, and the reality of defeat washed over them.
"We told each other to embrace this feeling and remember this feeling," Westbrook said. "We kind of looked around and just [said] we've got to get better. We have got to be the guys that come back and push everybody next season. We have got to get better, before we can find a way to get back here."
As he left the dais Durant cracked a quick smile, a brief reprieve from the agony. The pain will eventually subside for Durant, Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder. The memory of it will not.